GIO BRUNO: Show’s off his restaurant’s classic toasted ravioli brother Vince prepared for the “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” show.

After visiting more than 1,000 restaurants in several hundred cities in 48 states over the last 14 years, Guy Fieri and his production team know exactly what they are looking for when they seek an eatery to feature on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the popular, Emmy-nominated show Fieri (pronounced Fee-eddy) hosts on the Food Network.

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You can’t convincingly argue that any of the six restaurants from Little Rock and North Little Rock that have been featured on the show — Bruno’s Little Italy, Flyway Brewing, La Terraza Rum and Lounge, North Bar, The Root Cafe and the Fold Botanas and Bar — fit the definition of a “diner,” a “drive-in” or a “dive.” But those who operate the eateries were thrilled to be categorized as such — particularly when counting the money that flowed in after their episodes aired … and re-aired … and re-aired.

Four consecutive episodes in Season 29 of “Triple D” (as host Fieri calls in) featured these eateries in October and November 2018.

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“In June (2018) we got an email from the show’s producers saying, basically, ‘we’re coming to Little Rock and you are being considered,’ ” Gio Bruno remembered. The first step the co-owner of the legendary Bruno’s Little Italy had to take was answering a few questions:

1)     Have you ever been on TV before?

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2)     Do you have more than one location?

3)     Are your menu items made from scratch?

4)     What menu items are frozen?

5)     Are you the owner, the chef or both?

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6)     What are the top three sellers on your menu?

7)     How many seats do you have?

8)     When did you open?

And if those questions didn’t paint a clear enough picture of the show’s intentions, the email’s author tightened the focus: “They were looking for dishes that take a lot of prep and restaurants that take their time and care to do things from scratch,” Vince Bruno, chef and Gio’s younger brother, said. “They told us they value small, affordable, family-run joints.”

A couple more emails and phone calls later, Bruno’s Little Italy had officially been selected to be featured on the show. That confirmation in late August came only three days before the crew of “Triple D” (as Fieri calls it) — rolled into town.

And there were plenty of hoops to jump through — like closing your restaurant if you’re open at lunch (Bruno’s isn’t) and using that time to crank up your kitchen, mobilize your waitstaff and serve lots of “customers” who in fact are invited guests for these private meals served on two different days of shooting.  

There are many familiar faces in the Bruno’s episode — Charles Almon, a longtime customer at past locations and the first customer when Bruno’s opened on Main Street in October 2013, and Frank Cox, a decades-long friend of the family and restaurant who played guitar in local band the Groan-Ups when Gio was the lead singer.

Who is not there during all of this is Fieri. While his crew spent two very long days at Bruno’s, the star was there about 90 minutes total, when he worked in the kitchen as Vince Bruno painstakingly prepared his restaurant’s classic toasted ravioli appetizer and the equally classic Lasagna Imbotito. (The recipe on the show’s website might scare off anyone thinking about recreating it: It takes two and a half hours of prep and two hours of cooking.)

The experience, timeframe and schedule the Brunos detailed is the same that representatives of the other five featured restaurants reported. And all also celebrated their premiere night with a huge watch party on-site.

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“We rented big TVs and put them on that wall,” Gio Bruno said, pointing toward the wall on the northern end of his cozy restaurant. “When the show came on, everything stopped — including service.”

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One could argue that the six were doing pretty well before the Food Network rolled into town in August 2018. But representatives of all confirm that appearing on the show has been a huge boon to their business. 

“We immediately saw an uptick in business,” Gio Bruno said. “It jumped the very next day, and then it rose some more. It was probably about two weeks after it aired the first time that we had the biggest bump from it.

“Since we were on television, our slowest night sales have jumped by $1,000 a night,” Bruno said. “We get a bunch of out-of-towners in the hotels near here. No matter where they are from, if they are downtown, they eat with us. Guy brings them.

“There was a guy in the [U.S.] military in Afghanistan. He emailed us after seeing us on the show. We sent him a Bruno’s T-shirt, and he sent us a T-shirt. It’s crazy that someone that far away saw you and loved what you do. That’s what it’s all about really.

“And we get a bump every time it re-airs. About half the people who say they saw us on the show are from out of state. And we have plenty of people who say, ‘I’ve lived in Little Rock all my life, but I’d never eaten here until I saw it on TV.’

“Every single night we have people who order our lasagna because they saw it on TV and decided they had to try it. And the uptick on toasted ravioli has been big. But if I see someone eating it as an entree, I know they saw it on TV!”

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The number of out-of-town visitors who have flocked to the featured restaurants likely reflects two things: 1) the popularity of the Flavortown mobile app (99 cents in the app store), which plays off the name of the fictional town of which Fieri serves as self-elected mayor. The app lets users search by state for a list of each restaurant in the 48 states where “Triple D” has taped segments (wondering which two he’s missed? the Dakotas); and 2) Little Rock’s/North Little Rock’s geographic location at the Interstate 40/Interstate 30 interchange, through which an estimated 210,000 vehicles pass every day. And some of them stop to grab a bite to eat. Fieri has featured 13 restaurants in Alaska, more than twice as many as Arkansas, but ask those owners how many out-of-towners have stopped in when they were just passing through.

Hank Cook of North Bar — “I run the place, make things happen, but I don’t have a title” — says he took the advice of the show’s producers and put a national map on the restaurant’s wall so “Triple D”-driven visitors can stick a pin to mark where they live.

“Every single person who comes here from out of town tells us they’re here because they watched the show,” Cook says. “That app is the thing — they see we are here, and they stop off. We are near lots of hotels, too.”

The rerun schedule is something Cook says he doesn’t even try to keep up with. “But we’ve been here on a Wednesday night and wondered why we are so busy, and someone will tell us, ‘I saw you on the show,’ and we’ll say to each other, ‘I guess it re-aired.’ ”

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Jack Sundell and his crew at The Root Cafe have kept a closer watch on when Episode 6 of season 29 will next air, because they want to be prepared.

Brian Chilson
THE ROOT’S JACK SUNDELL: He calls Triple D’s Instagram post of his pimiento cheeseburger “the gift that keeps giving.”

“That Saturday [after The Root’s episode debuted] was our busiest day ever, not by some crazy percentage but still a new record,” Sundell says. (It’s been broken since.) He and catering manager Kevin Hamman noted that the next reruns were airing Valentine’s weekend, and those would be the 15th and 16th times the feature has been shown. (“They usually come in pairs,” Sundell notes.)

“Every time it happens, we see more website traffic,” Hamman says. “Our website hits double, more or less. And the photo views will really spike. They watch the episode and Google our name. We see it happen.”

Sundell points out that “Triple D” has more than 9.9 million Instagram followers, so it’s no surprise when the shortened version of the video showing The Root’s pimiento cheeseburger being prepared was posted on Instagram it got more than 330,000 views and 186 comments. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he says.

About that pimiento cheeseburger: It was featured only as a special until Fieri’s team chose it for the show. It quickly made its way onto the regular menu.

“Our cheeseburger has always been our top- selling item,” Sundell says. “Now the pimiento cheeseburger as its own thing is fairly competitive [as a top seller].” Like the others, The Root also welcomes lots of out-of-towners driven there by the show. “We see a big spike on days people typically travel, like around Fourth of July or Thanksgiving,” Sundell says.

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Ren Scott, front-of-house and social media manager at Flyway Brewing, says she thinks the restaurant’s transition from an artisan-pretzel-only menu to a full array of excellently done bistro fare is likely what qualified Flyway to land on Fieri and company’s radar.

The show still featured two of the five Flyway pretzels — all of which remain very popular —but they also went for Gina’s Famous Gumbo Fries, a dish made possible after the restaurant added a fryer. It’s the creation of chef Georgina Jones Price, a graduate of the culinary school at UA Pulaski Tech, and after the dish was featured on “Triple D,” Gina won both categories in the gumbo contest at the 2019 Harvestfest fall event in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood.

Scott says the rush of business from being on the show was a little slower coming to Flyway.

PIMIENTO BURGER: Now always on The Root Cafe’s menu.

“We had gotten a little bit of warning that it might not be immediate, and there was no real boom on the first day. But probably in December or January [the segment debuted in early October], people started telling us they came here because they saw the show. Some said they wanted what was on the show. Some of them couldn’t remember what was on — but they wanted it.”

And, like the others, the Food Network has sent new locals Flyway’s way. “We’ve been here a little over four years now, and local people still come [after seeing the show] and say, ‘We didn’t know you were here.’ ”

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Alex Smith, chef and co-owner at The Fold Botanas and Bar, knows exactly when her restaurant felt the effects of being one of Fieri’s featured restaurants.

“Actually, the very next day a couple drove down from Kansas City and took a detour to stop here,” Smith says. “And we were really busy the next day, which was a Saturday,” says Bart Barlogie, Smith’s partner in The Fold. “And they wanted to take a picture of Alex,” who, by the look on her face when he brought that up, suggested she wasn’t really into that sort of thing.

“Really, the way we were able to tell” the impact from the show, says Smith, who also handles The Fold’s financials, “was by looking at the sales increase from years before.

“And we started seeing a trend: When the show was aired as a repeat on Thursday night, our weekend was bonkers! We sort of lost track after six months, but, oh my gosh, it was on so many times.” And when Smith did realize a rerun was coming up, she’d say, “The show’s going to be on. Let’s staff accordingly.”

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“They’re like groupies,” general manager Sarah Bolanos said about the out-of-towners gathered outside the locked door of La Terazza Rum & Lounge before it opened at 11 a.m. one Saturday in early October 2018. While she hoped they would be groupie-level fans of her restaurant after their lunch, Bolanos was referring to these folks’ obsession with “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” host Fieri and, therefore, the restaurants he features, including hers.

All the people queued up to get into La Terraza that morning were from out of town, several living many hundreds of miles away, and the show had premiered only 15 hours ago. “Hello, it’s only the next day,” she remembers thinking. Like many of the other restaurateurs who were featured on “Triple D,” Bolanos also has been visited by locals who didn’t even know La Terraza had been open three years before being on the show. She and her team also feel the bumps in business that accompany every re-airing of their episode.

“The last rerun was three weeks to a month ago, and we had people coming the next day — locals and folks from out of town — asking us about being on the show … and congratulating us,” Bolanos says.  

‘TRIPLE D’ DELIGHTS

Pretzels, Pork and Paella 

(Season 29, Episode 3)

Flyway Brewing

314 Maple St., North Little Rock 

  • Gina’s Famous Gumbo Fries ($11.99)
  • Free Range Pretzel: 1-pound rustic pretzel with bacon salt and hickory mustard ($5.99)
  • Migrate Pretzel: 1-pound rustic pretzel with lavender salt and honey mustard ($5.99)

 La Terraza Rum & Lounge

3000 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock 

  • Pernil Al Horno (oven-baked pork; $20)
  • Valencian Style Paella (includes both seafood and meat; $48 — intended for two)

From Big Burgers to Little Italy 

(Season 29, Episode 4)

Bruno’s Little Italy

310 Main St., Little Rock

  • Toasted Ravioli ($9)
  • Lasagna Imbotito ($18)

North Bar

3812 JFK Blvd., North Little Rock 

  • Arkansas BBQ Bologna Burger ($12)
  • Kung Fu Bird ($12)

Meaty Mashup 

(Season 29, Episode 5)

The Fold Botanas and Bar

3501 Old Cantrell Road, Little Rock

  • Bison Burrito ($13)
  • Cornmeal Waffle ($11)

Burgers, Bacon and BBQ 

(Season 29, Episode 6)

The Root Cafe

1500 Main St., Little Rock 

  • Pimiento Cheeseburger ($13.50)
  • Old World Style Bratwurst ($9.50)